Originally posted at the Center for Investigative Reporting.
By Kelly Chen.

On Tuesday, CIR staffers hung out on Reddit* to discuss a different kind of surveillance state: one that is mostly legal and quietly happening in your backyard. By using technologies such as facial recognition software and license-plate scanners, local law enforcement agencies are streamlining intelligence gathering to track your data. Here are a few questions Redditors asked reporters G.W. Schulz and Ali Winston. You can read the full archive of the chat here.

1. What kind of oversight do local law enforcement agencies have to ensure they’re not abusing their surveillance tactics? via Davy_boy

Ali Winston: Most police departments regulate their intelligence gathering practices through internal general orders, if they’re large enough by audits from internal inspector generals, or independent civilian oversight bodies, if they exist. Some departments, like NYPD and San Francisco PD, had court restrictions on their intelligence gathering operations imposed in the 1980s and 1990s after abuses came to light. NYPD’s decree, theHandschu Decree is probably the best-known restriction on local police intelligence gathering, though it was controversially loosened after September 11. The lack of oversight and relaxed restrictions are part of the reason NYPD’s Counterterrorism and Intelligence Divisions began their own surveillance operations, which Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman wrote about in their book, Enemies Within.

The ACLU found that departments have widely ranging guidelines for how long they’ll store plate-scanner data, from 48 hours to five years to indefinitely.

G.W. Schulz: It frequently depends on the individual agency and what rules it adopts for things like retaining data from license-plate scanners. But there are also decades-old rules on data storage stemming from spying abuses that took place in the middle of the last century. See 28 CFR Part 23.

Any communities you’ve run into with a particularly worrying lack of rules or oversight system? (continued, via Davy_boy)

Winston: San Diego, since the TACIDS system (Tactical Identification System) was initiated by the San Diego Association of Governments, a joint powers authority that is not elected by the voters. Fresno, because the city has an extremely high rate of officer-involved shootings. NYPD, for having a police commissioner who went rogue over the past 10 years with stop and frisk and the Muslim spying program. Chicago PD for too many reasons to count, but Jon Burge‘s saga is a good example of the department’s lack of accountability.

 2. Have you seen any evidence of a national (government run) ALPR database? viaaldestrawk

Schulz: Yes, we wrote about that very thing last year – a privately run ALPR (automatic license-plate recognition) database that can be accessed by police.

Winston: That’s a terrific question. Fusion centers in San Diego, Los Angeles, Maryland and Northern California all collect LPR data and share that information with federal law enforcement in the region. The Navy’s SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command) branch has also been heavily involved in the development of ALPR technology. But I have not seen mention of one unified national LPR database under federal control.

3. I live in San Diego County where facial recognition has been deployed, apparently since early this year, and is in use by police and sheriff departments during street stops. Must these revelations be the sole responsibility of the press? Why has it taken law enforcement so long to inform the public about this practice and is there no responsibility to get public feedback before such tactics are employed? via misterGT

Schulz: It’s not always the case that police will go out of their way to inform the public about new technologies. They may not expect the technologies to be controversial. On the other hand, they may be very aware of the potential for controversy. See Stingray devices.

Winston: When I began reporting this story about TACIDS, most police departments in the San Diego area didn’t know some of their officers were using the facial recognition system. The officers who use TACIDS are almost all terrorism liaison officers who work closely with the San Diego Joint Terrorism Task Force, so in the larger departments knowledge about who was using this system was pretty compartmentalized. Except the San Diego sheriff; they actually sent deputies out to vendors to vet different facial recognition systems.

The blue wall of silence is a real thing, though. Other police I’ve spoken to in San Diego and elsewhere have expressed unease about the facial recognition system and were confused about why there was no public notice of the program.

4. What’s going to happen when police in major cities start wearing uniform cams? It can’t be possible to store all that indefinitely and sift through it, right? The ACLU, I’m a little surprised, came out with some guidelines for what the group would consider acceptable use of that technology. Do you think it’s likely that law enforcement will agree to the proscriptions of the ACLU? And whether they do or don’t, what kind of impact do you see uniform cameras having on the surveillance society? via adamfhutton

Winston: Lapel cameras have been heavily promoted as a solution to law enforcement misconduct, and the program currently in place at Rialto, CA’s police department has gotten tons of press. However, there are major problems with officers not activating their cameras when they are supposed to. I reported on this problem with Oakland PD’s chest camera program last year, but the situation hasn’t changed much.

Schulz: Good question. The Border Patrol’s union is vigorously opposed to them right now as a tool for curbing use-of-force complaints, but other departments see them as valuable for generating evidence of dishonesty from people who file complaints.

 5. We’re clearly losing the ‘surveillance war’, though I hate to call it that. Imagine our world 15 years in the future; how do you see the public’s relationship with the Internet changing based on this knowledge of total surveillance? via thinkwalker

Schulz: Consumers have a labyrinth of privacy policies online to navigate, so I think the response often is to stop worrying altogether and assume pervasive monitoring is the new norm. But Americans repeatedly respond negatively to stories about new surveillance technologies and programs they weren’t aware of. So some major tech firms, on their own, sometimes take steps to send the message that consumer privacy matters to them. An example is Google.

*Editor’s note: Reddit is a popular social media site among young techies. It is frequently used to start discussion boards and allows for anonymous contribution.